February 23, 2010

Lost Post from Sunday

I'm nearly alone in the house tonight. The same house that normally harbors the energy of 14. It's strange and lonely to have eaten my dinner in silence for the first time in a month. I'm in the cusp between semesters, dangling between the excitement of those returning home and the thrill of my new adventure. Since I can't talk to anyone anyway (laryngitis can shove it!) I'm using this long weekend to regroup.

As Fiona predicted, I'm asking a lot of the big questions to myself. Who am I? Where am I? What am I? Perhaps interesting for a conversation over coffee, I'm not terribly worried about these yet. I'm more concerned with questions like how can I spend 3 days at the house and not go nuts? When the heck will my voice come back? Will I fit in with the new volunteers? Am I blogging too often?

I'm also thinking about my real purpose here. I don't foresee an extended career of teaching English in Cambodia, so I've got to focus on what I can do for these students in the next three months. When I began teaching in late January, most of the other teachers had already given up on lesson planning and found a natural rhythm with students—or, they resorted to field trips and the media room. I felt a lot of pressure to make my lessons really fun, to disguise the learning part. I tried to be really creative and use lots of mini games to engage students. However, the feedback I got last week made me rethink my method.

Students at CWF are mostly university students or young professionals who are looking to English as a way to get a better job. At $40 for 10 weeks, these Cambodians are investing a hefty sum, though not the $120+ that similar schools charge. These are not restless children who were forced to come to school. These are adults who are motivated to improve their lives. They don't mind doing the grunt work that learning a language takes.

Based on that, of course I want to have a fun classroom atmosphere, but I want to focus on giving them a real learning environment. I've learned that Cambodian education is inconsistent at best, and that students at CWF have very little understanding of learning strategy and classroom behavior (at least the strategies and behaviors that western cultures take for granted). The best gift I give them is to do everything I can to help them learn the course material and give them a learning strategies for the future. The typical language classroom includes an introduction of new vocabulary, drills, controlled practice, and review.

My responsibility as a conversation teacher is to speak slowly and clearly enough for students to understand, but also to challenge them in real time. In a real conversation, many times there is no pen or whiteboard to write the word or draw a picture. In real time, we use gestures or description to get our point across. Sometimes, I have found that even if the student knows the correct word, the pronunciation limits my ability to understand. The Khmer-accented English is one of the most difficult I've come across. Similarly, listening to English must be very difficult for Khmer-trained ears. The sounds and emphasis are just back to front different. For instance, when we were talking about food, one student was raving about “spAHgehdEE” and I just couldn't make sense of it. Eventually, we got “spaghetti” and the world was small again.

I have a lot to learn.